Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Be Kind To Your Readers

Like many ex-journalists, I pride myself in being skeptical. But my Lou Grant exterior is sometimes defeated by my inner Pollyanna. When that happens, I enjoy reading a blog by Love Is the Killer App author Tim Sanders.

In an April 3 entry, Tim argues that simply being kind is one of the keys to success. "A 2002 study on customer service found that if you are likeable and competent," he writes, "you have a threefold increase in the likelihood of getting satisfactory service."

I may have to turn in my papers as a grumpy ex-journalist, but I agree. It's not just the whole catch-more-flies-with-honey-than-vinegar thing. It's also that kindness tends to beget more kindness.

So this got me thinking... How can you be kind in writing? Sounds funny, I know, but here are five literary ways to make nice more than just another four-letter word:

  1. Write like you talk. Don't use high falutin' language, complicated syntax or five-syllable words to show off your smarts. When I was in the newspaper business, we used to call this "smoking jacket language" -- the kind of pompous talk used by someone wearing a velvet jacket, holding a cigar and swirling some brandy in a snifter. You don't ever talk like that, you say? Let's consider the common phrase: "In my humble opinion..." Huh? How about saying "I think" or "I believe" instead?
  2. Don't use jargon. This is trickier than it sounds because one person's jargon is another person's normal language. But here's a question: Do you regularly use terms like SEO, RSS or Web 2.0 in your writing? My husband, who's a smart guy with seven years of post-secondary education, doesn't have a clue what they mean. If he's your reader, he'll consider that language to be a big fat scowl.
  3. Don't waste your reader's time. Be concise. When editing, try to remove at least 20% of your text. Use boldface and headlines to make it easy for your reader to skim or scan your text.
  4. Tell stories and use metaphors. We don't need more facts in this world. We're drowning in 'em! We need more understanding. The best way to achieve this is to tell stories and use metaphors. For example, I can suggest you spend an hour a month working on your income tax, or I can tell you a story about someone who did that and saved himself weeks of misery in April. Which do you think is more convincing -- the advice or the proof? Likewise, I can describe someone as a mouthy know-it-all or I can tell you he's the Donald Trump of the building. See what I mean?
  5. Watch your order. When I edit, I often discover that writers have presented information "out of order." That is, they tell me Point C when I really need to know Point A first. Think hard about your readers' "need to know" and be sure to define terms or explain processes at just the right time in the text.

"Being kind" in your writing isn't rocket science. It's just the literary equivalent of the golden rule: treat your readers as you would like to be treated yourself.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 28th 2007, 10:49 AM
Comment by: joanna Y.
Hi Daphne, thanks very much for this. I think if you hold on to the image (or feeling) of your reader as a person, a real human being, it becomes easier (even natural!) to follow the suggestions you make. How about adding one another: try smiling as you write?

Joanna (smiling)
Monday May 28th 2007, 8:32 PM
Comment by: Josefina B.
Very kindly written indeed. I think most beginning writers don't know they are being unkind. But the veterans write "kindly" because this is the only way to be read. Always enjoy reading the features in this website.
Tuesday May 29th 2007, 2:13 PM
Comment by: linda B.
Good article. One spelling error: "tricker" should be "trickier."
Tuesday May 29th 2007, 2:18 PM
Comment by: Anonymous
Oops... thanks, Linda, good catch... fixed! Harris/ VT editor

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